By John Kolesidis
Known in Greece as Evzones, the soldiers comprising the presidential guard – a term dating back to Homer, meaning the “well-girt” men, implying an elite status – are a symbol of discipline. The unit is often referred to as “the jewel of the Greek army”, and rightly so. Their primary mission is to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier around the clock, which may seem like a piece of cake, except it isn’t. During their watch, they have to remain completely motionless and stand at attention at all costs in all kinds of weather. During violent demonstrations, for example, plastic water bottles, oranges and Molotov cocktails keep flying over their heads. Their eyes may tear up because of the tear-gas used by police, but they remain stone-still, maintaining a show of normality. It is quite surreal to watch them stand still while a virtual war is raging around them or while little children tease and harass them, often pinching them to make sure they are alive.
It’s not easy to join the presidential guard. There is a minimum height requirement of 6.1″, and the soldier has to be in top physical and mental health. A series of exercises and drills are necessary to establish their unparalleled level of discipline. Upon waking up in their camp, which is identical to the rest of the army camps, the Evzones perform an extended program of marching and lining up drills, as well as endurance training and stretching exercises at the National Garden. Their target is to learn how to raise their legs to shoulder height and get used to standing on their feet for more than 100 hours per month.
Next to their discipline, the most striking thing about them is their handmade uniforms, mirroring the lengthy national struggles. The white kilt comprises of 400 pleats, representing the 400 years under Ottoman occupation. The red leather clogs weighing more than seven pounds bear around 60 nails, depending on the size, which would hook to the rocky ground of the mountains where the Greek people fought at the time. Getting dressed is no simple mission either. Putting on the uniform is a ritual in itself, demanding the presence of two people. One helps the other, as the various items have to be placed carefully, and the uniform has to remain crisp.
As a sign of respect to this select unit, the presidential guard is also in charge of the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag on the sacred rock of the Acropolis. Every Sunday and on every national holiday, they ride the coach on their feet so as not to get their uniform creased, until they reach the entrance of the archaeological site. In silence and reverence, they walk by the Erectheion temple to line up before the Parthenon.
In today’s changing Greece, where the financial crisis is coupled with a profound crisis of institutions, values and culture, there is still something that has remained unaltered, an institution tirelessly bearing the Greek history, true to the national tradition: namely, the presidential guard.